By Téa Franco
Three days before the deadline to register to vote in the 2018 midterm election, my roommate Hannah helped me make a Tinder.
“What pictures do you want on your profile?” Hannah scrolled through my photos.
“I don’t think it matters.”
“Oh, it matters.” Hannah picked a picture of the two of us from Halloween, and then a picture of me on the steps of Capitol Hill. She set the parameters to both men and women, within a twenty mile radius, ages 18-29. “The least likely to vote,” she said.
She handed me back my phone, and I began swiping right on every person, waiting for the matches to start coming in. I always made the first move. Serious Tinder users often spend hours trying to come up with the perfect pickup line to send to their matches, but mine was pre-prepared and simple: Did you know that the last day to register to vote in South Carolina is on Tuesday? To find out how to register go to scvotes.gov.
I chose an unorthodox way to use Tinder, and an unorthodox way to rally political efficacy, but I’ve never been one to do things in a normal way. When I learned 18-29 year olds have more voting power than baby boomers, yet we continually vote less than any other demographic, I felt personally obligated to do something about this problem. The lack of efficacy emanating from people my age was making it so we did not have a voice. It also gave us a stereotype from adults which, frankly, made me look bad. Something needed to change.
Before resorting to online dating, I tried to go a more traditional route. I signed up to canvas with the York County Democratic party.
I walked into the dusty party headquarters hidden away in an office space shared with a wax salon, real estate agency, and some other businesses I’d never heard of with my hopes floating higher than the water stained ceilings. Derek, the volunteer coordinator handed me a stack of poorly photoshopped pamphlets and a clipboard, grouped me with a pair of older women, and sent me on my way.
As we drove to our destination, I watched the part of town I knew zoom past my window. I expected us to pull into small suburban neighborhoods or run-down apartment complexes, but we continued driving until we approached parts of town unfamiliar to me, despite living here nearly three years. We pulled into a neighborhood with a name I don’t recall and that, due to my awful sense of direction, could never get to again, filled with looming brick houses, perfectly green lawns, and the kind of shiny sports cars that my dad looked at in magazines. We stood in front of looming oak doors and rang a lot of doorbells, a majority of which lit up when you touched them and had built-in cameras. Some people answered; most of them gave us a similar response: “I already know about the election and I plan to vote democrat.” I soon realized we were only going to the houses of older, rich democrats, who—according to like every statistic, ever— were basically guaranteed to vote. It didn’t feel helpful, but the women I was canvassing with were experienced. They said that since it’s impossible to knock on every door, they must only speak to consistent voters and share the same ideologies as the party. At the time, I didn’t entirely believe that it was helpful, and later my suspicions were confirmed when I learned that canvassing only makes a voter 4.3 percent more likely to vote, which makes a lot of sense when you are only targeting people who are going to vote anyway.
The next time I went to canvass, the neighborhood had modest one floor houses, with buckled vinyl siding and shutters with peeling paint, much more like the houses I was used to seeing in Rock Hill. This time Derek paired me with Judy, a talkative woman who always wore a monogrammed wool vest. Judy told me all the ins and outs of canvassing. She told me that the only reason we are going to a lower income area was because of the increased amount of volunteers that allowed us to make it to more houses than usual.
Attempts to ring broken doorbells went unanswered so we knocked instead. Almost everyone answered the door. Once again, we spoke to a lot of older people who already planned on voting or who voted early, so I was surprised when I opened the door to a younger couple.
“Hi, I am with the York County Democratic Party, and I am seeing if you are coming out to vote for James Smith on Tuesday, November 6,” I said, holding up my clipboard as proof of my official business.
“Yes, of course, we will both be there!” The woman who answered the door said while gesturing to her husband.
“Do you want an informational pamphlet?” I asked, handing it to her.
She took it and asked, “Can I have an extra one? I have been trying to get my nephew to vote, so I need to give him one of these so he knows who to vote for.” I handed her a second pamphlet and she smiled and waved goodbye.
“Be careful with giving out extra pamphlets, the headquarters doesn’t give us a lot of extras,” Judy said.
“She just wanted it to give to her nephew, it is going to be his first time voting.”
“Young kids like that never vote, so we’re really wasting material by giving it to her.” She shrugged in her certainty, seeming to forget she was canvassing with me, a young person who votes.
Since the election was so close, we went to a second neighborhood that day. It only took a few minutes to drive from headquarters to this neighborhood, yet it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Every house in the neighborhood looked tired, as if the one story ranch-style homes carried the weight of the lives of the people inside of them. We passed a tiny road sign labeled Blackmon Road.
“Have you ever heard of Blackmon road?” Judy asked.
“No. I don’t think I’ve ever been to this part of town.”
“It’s really sad, but they don’t have water there.” She sighed. “The government found some loophole to get out of granting them access.”
Of course, we didn’t turn down Blackmon Road.
As we started canvassing, we ran into an issue when we couldn’t find some of the houses on our list. Another resident told us about the demolitions many years prior that took down half the houses on the street. The majority of the houses Derek had assigned us no longer existed. Most people didn’t answer their doors, but when they did, they gladly took some pamphlets and promised to vote.
We drove over to the extension of the street to our last stop. We stepped out of the car to see a sprawling lawn of brown grass that crunched when you stepped on it, and a small grey house with a rusted fence. We didn’t need to approach the door because eight people sat outside in the front lawn around a shallow hole in the ground lined with rocks the size of car tires to create a makeshift fire pit talking and laughing loud enough to rupture the sky that already dared to rain. The golden flames licked the gray fall air. Eight pairs of mittened hands hovered near the flames or held tall cans of beer.
As we approached, the group seemed to lean forward in anticipation. Clipboard in hand, I began our usual spiel, while my partner hung back. After I finished talking, they stared at me for a minute before one of the men, wearing a red beanie that hid most of his grey hair, spoke.
“Well damn, nobody told us there was an election. What day did you say it was again?”
“November sixth,” I used my pen to circle the date on the pamphlet, “James Smith is the democratic candidate for governor, do you want to know more about his platform?”
I know he asked me a question or two, but I can’t remember what. I do remember most of his friends listening and leaning in while we talked. It surprised me that none of them knew about the election, especially since I lived on a college campus where I was inundated with news about the election every day. I knew that people with lower incomes had a harder time getting informed, but I didn’t fully realize how distant you become from the world when you don’t have the internet or live in a highly populated area. And this distance shows in the income gap in voter turnout. In 2012, 80.2 percent of Americans making over $150,000 a year voted, whereas just 46.9 percent of Americans making less than $10,000 a year voted.
After I finished highlighting some of my favorite platform points about James Smith, the man who took the first pamphlet said, “Can I have some more of those? I am going to bring them over to BiLo next time I go. They usually give these things to us when I go. That’s how I heard about the last election.”
I remembered Judy’s criticism the last time I handed someone an extra pamphlet, and I felt her eyes on me as I pulled out a stack and handed them to him anyway. If he didn’t know about the election, I can’t imagine how many other people didn’t know as well.
Soon after that I began to wonder how to get information out to some of the people who need it most. Young and poor people are nearly invisible to the political process, despite having their voices heard could impact our democracy. Wealthy, older, white people are the main voter demographic in every election. Because of this, political parties make moves to appeal to those people. Since people in other demographics don’t vote, they don’t get represented well by the government. Seeing this happen up close made me wonder if it was possible to meet people where they are at. I knew I could at least get to young people through social media, and I knew Tinder would allow me a wider range of young people, not just my followers on Twitter who are all in similar life situations as me.
I doubt I made a lot of waves with my political Tinder account, although I did have a few conversations with people who wanted to know more about the elections (I also got unmatched with a lot of people, too). Canvassing showed me that maybe part of the reason younger, poorer people don’t vote is because of the lack of information being sent to them. Nobody approaches 18 year olds who aren’t on college campuses ensuring that they vote. Nobody goes to areas like Blackmon Road to let them know about local elections and how important voting is. If people aren’t given the proper tools to know when elections take place and how to participate in them, it is impossible to vote. And I knew that myself and my Tinder account is not the answer to any of these problems, but I spent hours on that app trying to convince people to vote anyways.
Téa Franco is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University. She has prose, poetry, and book reviews published in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, Barren Magazine, Entropy Magazine, and others.